Communicating claims on food packages in a way that multi-cultural consumers can understand and that is compliant with the EU’s regulation on health claims can be challenging because of differences in culture, language and enforcement policies across the continent.
To find out how consumers respond to health claims presented on food packages, what impact the wording, location on pack and use of symbols and pictures, and to help producers cope with regulatory requirements while appealing to consumers, EIT Food researchers launched the Health Claims Unpacked project.
The initiative is funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) and includes partners across Europe, including the British Nutrition Foundation. Although the UK is no longer part of the EU, the Great Britain Nutrition and Health Claims Register adopted all the guidelines of the EU Register of Health Claims as of 1 January 2021.
The disconnect between countries and consumers
The EIT Food team found that typically, European consumers across the board find the authorised wording of claims confusing and sometimes off-putting. Consumers either don’t understand or trust health claims, and so are not able to use them to make informed personal nutrition choices.
One reason for this is that regulations focus more on the ‘truth value’ of the claims rather than on whether or not consumers can easily understand them. Manufacturers and marketers may also lack info about how people interpret and respond to different linguistic and graphic elements on packages, especially when it comes to scientific information. The situation is even more complex when you consider the fact that, across the EU, health claims must be expressed in many different languages and meet the needs of consumers in many different food cultures.
The team found that consumers from different regions are also attracted to various criteria. British and Polish consumers, for instance, are more open to studying the health benefits on pack. French consumers, on the other hand, are not generally taken in by claims of ‘healthiness’ and are more interested in quality and taste. Germans respond better to assertions about the environment and more sustainable farming and manufacturing processes.
The team also found that translation was also causing an uneven playing field for producers wanting to traverse borders. The EU Member States have all agreed to an informal set of guiding principles on wording, and while generally understood by most consumers across the continent, this has created a disconnect in certain circumstances.
For example, the rules advise the word ‘normal’ should be retained in all translations and not replaced with another term. ‘Normal’ – as in ‘potassium contributes to the maintenance of normal blood pressure’ – appears in the English version of around two thirds of authorised health claims. However, the word has a negative connotation among many Polish consumers. Official Polish translations instead call for the use of ‘healthy’ (zdrowy) instead, as in ‘wapń jest potrzebny do utrzymania zdrowych kości (calcium is needed to maintain healthy bones)’.
The scientists also found that consumers from different countries respond differently when authorised health claims are reworded. English and German speakers prefer shorter claims with simple words and grammar, while the French are typically more attracted to figurative language and find it does not interfere with the scientific meaning behind claims.
“Translation is never a matter of one-to-one correspondence,” said Dr Sylvia Jaworska, a linguist working on the Health Claims Unpacked project.
Principal investigator Prof Rodney Jones, added, “The way the authorised claims are worded, and the differences in how the regulation is enforced in different countries, makes many manufacturers reluctant to use health claims at all, which means that consumers get less information about the nutritional value of their food,” said Prof Rodney Jones, principal investigator.
One empirically-based set of guidelines
The Health Claims Unpacked project brings together a unique combination of researchers and professionals with expertise in linguistics, information design, behavioural economics, health and nutrition, computer science and marketing, working in partnership with manufacturers, retailers, NGOs and food start-ups to develop an empirically-based set of guidelines.
The aim is to develop a ‘prosumerist’ digital platform to not only help product developers communicate more effectively, but also to help consumers to make more informed choices.
As such, the interactive website engages consumers in educational and entertaining activities to determine how they interact with health claims, how the font, colour and pictures play a role, and how these claims can influence their willingness to purchase.
The platform is currently available in English, German, French and Polish. Romanian and Hungarian versions will be added by the end of 2021.